Re: [asa] Darwin only biological evolution? (can anything exist without evolution?)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Tue Jan 13 2009 - 15:09:16 EST

Thanks for this David,

I've been reflecting upon how to make the point that largely what we have here is a matter of semantics - with Bernie's use of "evolution" and "memes" not according with general historical usage. Thankfully your timely post has saved me the trouble!

Two further points, however;

First, the semantics are a matter of importance. As Greg Arago has repeatedly pointed out (and quite rightly so, in my view); there are major sociological issues as stake here when we allow such blatant equivocation of a term of such cultural significance as "evolution." It's frankly critical that we be very clear that ideas do NOT evolve in the same way as bacteria. When we fail to do so, the only criterion by which we can measure thoughts is their survival value. Failing such a distinction, we have no way to discern between "good" and "bad" ideas in the world of thought, anymore than we can speak of "good" or "bad" species in the world of animals.

Second, on the question of whether Beethoven's work can be said to be "evolutionary" the important question to my mind is NOT how it resembles previous work, but how it varies from same. What's powerful about evolutionary theory in the life sciences is that it accounts for CHANGE as well as similarity. The question to be asked in respects of the suggestion that Beethoven's Ninth "evolved" is "what accounts for the difference?" If the answer is "intelligent agency" then I think Iain can rest his case - Beethoven's Ninth simply DIDN'T "evolve" through the same sort of processes involved in biological evolution.

Incidentally, I find the historical inversion curious: Darwin tried to explain biological evolution by saying it is "a bit like" selective breeding with the major point of difference being that in the one case selection was without purpose whilst in the other human agency was obviously involved. His argument, in other words, was basically "biological evolution = selective breeding - intelligent agency." Now, it seems the reasoning is "selective breeding = biological evolution" therefore "intelligent agency = 0".


David Opderbeck wrote:
> Bernie, I think you're right about this: if "evolution" means simply
> "change over time," and "meme" means simply "thought," then yes,
> everything (except God perhaps) evolves, and all cultural artifacts are
> memes. But if "evolution" and "meme" are defined so broadly, they cease
> to be meaningful terms. I could just as well say, "you drove a ham
> sandwich to work today." You can't dispute that proposition if I happen
> to define "ham sandwich" to mean what you think "automobile" means --
> but that signifies nothing.
> I understand "evolution" to imply, at least, gradual change over time
> without the influence of any apparent sentient agency, i.e., by a
> stochastic process. That would exclude any human cultural product, with
> the possible exception of things like the stock market that can be
> analyzed as emergent forms of stochastic self-organization, from the
> definition of evolution.
> I understand "meme" to imply, at least, a discrete unit of culture that
> has its own existence and that acts like a gene. Under this definition,
> most thoughts are not memes.
> I think my usage is reasonably consistent with how these terms
> historically have been used.
> David W. Opderbeck
> Associate Professor of Law
> Seton Hall University Law School
> Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

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Received on Tue Jan 13 15:09:36 2009

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